China’s appetite for confrontation seems insatiable. In the last few months, its coastguards have sunk two Vietnamese fishing boats, the Chinese navy fixed its radar guns on a Philippines navy vessel, and the PLA amassed troops along the India-China border.
The aggression towards India was presumably an attempt to signal to Asian neighbors that China can up the ante at its choosing. That a seasoned Indian army responded with strength in hand-to-hand combat, and the Indian government took the extraordinary step of banning 59 Chinese apps from the Indian market, seems to have caught the ruling CCP by surprise. Despite this the provocations continue, with Bhutan now issuing a demarche on China’s attempt to declare a Bhutanese wildlife sanctuary in Sakteng a disputed territory. It is almost as if China is trying to convince the global community of its disregard for international norms and regional multipolarity.
The unfortunate pattern emerging is that any country that does not give a strong response to Chinese claims will soon enough become a victim of its aggression. Judging by how China has thumbed its nose at the West, it is evident that even credible threats of sanctions are no deterrent against an expansionist regime. Australia appears to have recognized the new reality after years of prioritizing negotiations and commercial interests. Equally significant, although not as publicized, are the calibrated steps being taken by Tokyo.
“We need to examine China's intent clearly,” Defense Minister Taro Kono said at a recent press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. He noted the pressure on the Japanese fighter fleet when he told reporters that Japanese military planes now scramble daily in response to Chinese aircraft approaching Japanese airspace. Japan also took the unusual step of confirming that a foreign submarine that navigated an area just outside Japan's territorial waters in June belonged to the Chinese Navy. Explaining his decision, Konosaid: “we concluded that we should reveal the nationality of the submarine in light of various circumstances, including the Senkaku Islands” especially given that “China is trying to change the status quo unilaterally in East China Sea, South China Sea and with the Indian border and Hong Kong as well.”
In terms of military capability there is adequate cause for concern. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has around 300 fighter aircrafts. Meanwhile, China has grown from a nation without any modern fighter jets, submarines or frigates in the early 1990s to more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. Japan and China have overlapping territorial claims in the East China Sea, and the wide gap in military arsenals of the two nations will only embolden China.
In the South China Sea, China has consistently militarized islets in disputed waters. On June 2 Indonesia was caught by surprise when China suddenly claimed to have overlapping claims over maritime rights in “some parts of the South China Sea.” China’s choice of words is strategic—by not specifically referring to Natuna and the waters around it, its claims will continue to expand beyond Natuna islands, a tactic in line with the CCP’s strategy to systematically transform uncontested areas into conflict zones.
Japan’s response to these developments has been characteristically measured. At the policy level, the Defense Ministry has created a new post in the Defense Policy Bureau to address issues related to ASEAN. The new official in the bureau's International Policy Division will focus on cooperation with allies such as India and Australia.
On the defence capability front, Defence Minster Kono has reignited debate over whether Japan should acquire first-strike capability. Implementation of first-strike capability would signal a fundamental shift in Japan’s policy. At a July 8 meeting of the House of Representatives Security Committee, the defence minster doubled down and stated that it would not be a violation of Japan's pacifist constitution to mount a defensive first-strike against an enemy launch pad that is preparing a missile attack against Japanese territory. Amidst continuous threats from a hostile China and North Korea, Japan sees a definitive need to strengthen its defense posture.
Tokyo has also announced plans to build one of the world's most sophisticated stealth jet fighters, likely a twin-engine aircraft designed to take over the country's critical air defense role sometime in the next decade. The Ministry of Defense this week told members of the Diet that the new sixth-generation fighters would begin production in 2031 and replace the aging fleet of F-2 jets, according to Japan's national broadcaster NHK.
Additionally, Japan has been cleared by the US State Department to purchase 105 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters as part of a package worth an estimated $23.11 billion. The potential F-35 deal is the second largest foreign military sale approved by Washington in history. Regarding the approval, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency issued a statement that “it is vital to U.S. national interest to assist Japan in developing and maintaining a strong and effective self-defense capability.”
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe there has been a growing recognition of uncertainty in the postwar international system and the customary role of the United States as the guarantor of international order. However, first-strike capability remains a sensitive issue domestically, and the debate regarding this has been going on for years. Critics call it unconstitutional, while strategists claim it a requisite step towards self-defense. Beijing’s continuing aggression in the East and South China Seas and its recent standoffs with India have raised alarm bells across Japan, and this is likely to bolster domestic support for enhanced self-defense capability.
China is Japan's largest trading partner, while Japan ranks high among China's major trading partners. A country with a confrontation-averse diplomatic culture naturally sees good relations with Beijing as favorable to its interests, and would typically want to avoid an arms race. Prime Minister Abe has worked hard to enable the now-postponed state visit by the Chinese president (Chinese President Xi's Japan visit, initially planned for this spring, had to be postponed due to the ongoing pandemic).
However, the reality being faced by Japan is a China that seems determined to dominate through raw power, pressure from the Trump administration to take on a more proactive role in the U.S.-Japan alliance, and the West that has begun the process to write off the Chinese market in favor of geopolitical objectives. In Asia, major democracies have no choice but to consolidate their positions and take these developments seriously.
Domestically, Japan will need to handle the optics of weighing pacifist domestic sentiment against the need to stand firm against a belligerent neighbor. Creating the political space to win public approval for defensive strike capability may take time given the strong resistance within Japan. However, its calibrated shift in tone suggests that Tokyo has read the warning signs emanating from Beijing, and clearly plans to bolster its capabilities in a fast-changing global scenario.
(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on India-Japan affairs, and an entrepreneur in linguistics. She has worked for Goldman Sachs, and is a graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University).